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Josh Eckels is ready for his next move in technology after implementing aspects of mechatronics and artificial intelligence to develop a chess-playing robot that stays one step ahead of its opponent.
And wins nearly every time.
The 2021 mechanical engineering graduate, with a minor in computer science, spent most of his senior year working in the Kremer Innovation Center’s MakerLab on a special project that mixed his love of the strategy-based game, robotics and real-world problem solving.
“I thought it would be easy at first, but as with most things involving technology, it became much more challenging,” says Eckels. “I also kept adding things that made the project even more difficult.”
If fact, after designing and constructing a robotic chess board for a mechatronic systems course during last winter’s academic quarter, the Evansville native broke it down and started over from scratch, with no grade on the line, throughout the spring.
“You create a challenge when you take on a project like this. I wanted to see it through to the end and to my satisfaction,” Eckels says while arranging the 32 black and white chess pieces at their starting positions on the 64-square game board. “I really wanted to do something that would encapsulate all of my technical skills and what I have learned so far. I saw it as a nice closure to my Rose-Hulman career.”
A camera hovering three feet above the chess board keeps a close eye on all of pieces and their movements. Once a game commences with an opponent moving a piece, that change is recognized by a series of sensors. An artificial intelligence-based chess engine then analyzes the board and determines the next best move. The desired move is sent to an Arduino microcontroller, which signals a custom claw gripper to manipulate pieces for the robot-controlled team. Then, the artificial intelligence control system waits patiently for the opponent’s next move.
Eckels describes his chess-playing robot and other aspects of the project here.
The game can be modified to match a desired difficulty setting to create a more evenly matched game.
“It can be programmed to challenge any level of opposing player – from beginner to advanced. A person may want the chance to win occasionally, but even at that, they’ll have to play a strong game to beat the system,” said Eckels, smiling at the thought of what he had developed. “I haven’t seen it lose yet.”
Most of the robot’s mechanical parts were created by multiple 3D printers within the Maker Lab.
“Fortunately, everything I needed to develop this project was right here on campus. All it took was the extra time and effort to move from my original concept (for the winter course) to the final project,” Eckels said. “The MakerLab was a great resource for me, as it is for other students. I just found some space and went to work. Nobody bothered it along the way. In fact, others, including several campus visitors, came by and admired what I was doing. That encouragement helped keep me going.”
The robotic chess game was among several student projects featured in this year’s Rose Show, a campus event which showcases student ingenuity in a variety of academic engineering and science fields.
Eckels has taken his technology and problem-solving skills to an aerospace doctorate degree program at the University of Michigan, which has one of the nation’s oldest and highest ranked graduate programs in the engineering discipline. His application was enhanced by past summer research experiences at Virginia Tech and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (Albuquerque, New Mexico) throughout his Rose-Hulman academic career.
“My dream has been to work in the aerospace field, especially with everything that’s happening in space exploration. I can’t wait to get to work on the next adventure,” Eckels said.
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